That’s a joke by Jerry Seinfeld, arguably the greatest American comedian of modern times. He is, perhaps, an acquired taste but he’s worth $800 million so he must be doing something right.
I had just joined Toastmasters and had to give one of my first speeches. When I received my brief to give a humorous speech, I was told, ‘You don’t have to do stand up — just entertain and make sure you get a laugh.’
It got me thinking about what I could learn about making speeches from stand-up comedians.
What can we as speakers learn from some of the great comedians, specifically Jerry Seinfeld?
It’s not what they do but how they do it.
Let’s look at three key points to see how we might copy comedians
- Revise, revise, revise — practice makes perfect as well all know — nothing is ever right on the first try — or the 10th.
To prepare for his first appearance on the Tonight Show, Jerry practised his routine 200 times.
2. Compare to parallel crafts — Jerry compares his joke-writing process to baseball, high-end car design, samurai, calligraphy, and the art of cricket-cage building. He needs to view his work through different lenses to understand it better.
We could compare our process of preparing our speeches to:
- kayaking (one paddle at a time)
- running (in stages, building on strength, hitting the wall and getting beyond)
- construction (the building blocks of that new alfresco)
3. Be obsessive about methods and tools — Jerry always writes material with a Bic blue clear-barrel pen on yellow legal pad, longhand. He wrote every episode of Seinfeld this way. He gets rid of the mundane to focus on what’s meaningful. He doesn’t like the cursor looking back at him.
My tools of choice are Google and Youtube. I can’t quite comprehend how I did without these tools for so many years.
Other ways comedians entertain their audience
1. Be self-deprecating — in other words they are able to make fun of themselves
Groucho Marx said:
Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.
Cooking and me — my husband says I have a black belt in cooking — one chop and you’re dead.
2. Comedians want to tell a story — often something personal
As Jerry says:
We humans like to see some schmuck sweat.
Jerry spent two years working on a joke about pop tarts — pop tarts are flat cardboard-like biscuits that are not very nice.
He’s still working on his joke about his childhood and the punchline is:
They can’t go stale cos they were never fresh.
3. Comedians focus on interesting words and, of course, it’s all in the timing.
Jerry modelled the George and Jerry characters from Seinfeld on Abbott and Costello — America’s most popular comedy duo of the 1940s and 1950s. Their Who’s on first? act juggling the names ‘Who’, ‘What’, and ‘I don’t know’ over and over again remains one of the best-known acts to this day. Jerry famously starred in its revision on the Jimmy Fallon show.
Stand-up comedy and speechmaking have something in common — they are like standing against a wall blindfolded, with a cigarette in your mouth, and the squad is about to fire.
Comedians often compare their craft to death.
Failure (not getting laughs) is dying on stage.
Success is killing it.
By following these simple techniques of:
- Compare parallel crafts
- Use good methods and tools
You can kill it too! Just try not to die on stage.